The languages they don’t want you to know — Secret languages

High in the Andes live a group of itinerant herbalist healers. They are known for herb-based treatments in Bolivia, stretching towards Peru, Argentina, Chile, Ecuador and Panama. Walking through ancient trails, which can date back to the Incan period, they search for plants said to contain medicinal properties. Some contained quinine, a compound used to treat malaria. While others may be pending medical research into the effects of the selected herbs.

Perhaps these healers are known for the language only a select few speak. Containing Quechua grammatical elements and a mix of words from unknown sources or Pukina, this language is only passed down from father to son, or grandfather to grandson. In rare cases, daughters may be taught the language if there were no sons. In any case, this language is not meant to be used in an everyday context despite its capability to do so, but for rituals in the initiated. Ultimately, what makes this language ‘secret’ is its lack of transmission in typical family situations. This is Machaj Juyai, better known as Kallawaya, a language part of the putative Puquina family. We do not know how many people exactly speak the language, but with growing cultural and linguistic influences from Quechua, Aymara and now Spanish, many think that this secret language is now threatened with impending extinction.

There are no native speakers of Kallawaya, because of its method of transmission. In addition, the use of this language in these traditional practices have led linguists to also classify it as a sacred language, a language cultivated for its use primarily in religious purposes, by people who speak another primary language in their everyday life. Some would argue that it is also a cant, a language that serves to exclude people from the group, presumably non-initiated healers from the initiated and specialists.

Data surrounding this language is scarce. In 2008, Kallawaya gained attention from the documentary The Linguists, where linguists aimed to document moribund languages. Recordings of basic vocabulary and expressions were obtained, and linguistic analyses soon followed. Literature of this language is still lacking; the only journal paper I managed to find was The Formation of the Kallawaya Language by Hann, published in 2019 by the Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages.

The paper revealed the relationships of grammar elements and vocabulary with languages spoken in the region, as well as the extinct language Pukina, the suspected source of some influences on the Kallawaya language. Noting strong grammatical relationships between Kallawaya and South Quechua, the author argued that Kallawaya is a language created through lexical re-orientation of Quechua native speakers. Evidence for relationships of words between Kallawaya and Pukina is rare, suggesting that this only applied to a small proportion of Kallawaya vocabulary. Additionally, the author noted that Kallawaya contained some grammar elements which could not be attributed to Quechua or Aymara, making these stand out as deviations from Quechua grammar.

The Andes and Amazon sure hide many interesting languages, and this is just one of them. To date, no one is sure if the classification of the Puquina language family is a solid one, and if these could be considered as a language isolate, with virtually no linguistic relationships with other known languages in the world. Leco, Kallawaya,Qhapaq Simi and the now-extinct Pukina, members of this putative classification, definitely calls for more analyses to study how these languages evolved, interact and influence with one another, to build better understanding of how these languages came to be. Kallawaya, an elusive and esoteric language, may retain its secrets for the near future, and maybe forever, as this language’s status (second-language status, since there are technically no native speakers) remains uncertain, but very likely, in danger of decline and extinction. As its proposed linguistic cousin, Pukina was abandoned in favour of Quechua, Aymara and Spanish, many fear that the traditions of the Kallawaya language may follow a similar path.


I want to start another post series about languages which exclude or mislead people outside the group of speakers of said languages. It is an interesting linguistic aspect, as languages are typically defined as a method of communication, in a structured and conventional way. Yet, there are these languages which can serve to achieve the opposite effect, to communicate with other members of a given community, but intentionally prevents non-speakers and outsiders from understanding this communication. It can occur in the form of jargon, or specialised vocabulary, or it can adopt cryptic grammatical patterns as well. In socio- linguistics, the idea of cants, argots and anti-languages serves as an interesting take on the perception of the use of language.

Further Reading

Hann, K. (2019) The formation of the Kallwaya language. Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages, 34 (2), 243-286. Available from:

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